Company News

Mixing it with the best

26th October, 2006

Margate-based Simtek EMS, in its current guise has been offering a range of electronics manufacturing services for over two years now, following a Management Buyout (MBO) by the current owners Richard Samuel and Lee Boulton in 2004. But the company’s roots and experience extends back some 10 years as Richard explains.

“It all began with local electronics design and manufacturing company called Navico forming a partnership with a Japanese company Koden with the objective of manufacturing marine radar systems,” says Richard. “The company was known as Konav and one of the things that came out of the alliance was the construction of our current factory here in Margate, which occupies 6,000 sq ft that included kitting the facility out with a range of electronics manufacturing and test equipment purely to produce the marine radar equipment.”

This setup existed successfully for several years until the company was bought by Simrad AS, part of the Norwegian Kongsberg Group. “The problem here was that Simrad already owned a radar systems manufacturing facility so Konav, as a company, effectively dissolved as it was surplus to requirements,” recalls Richard, “and Simrad were left with a manufacturing facility and a set of employees that were essentially redundant.”

In a bold move by Simrad, the company decided to set up Simtek as a sub-contract manufacturer and predictably in the early days of the company’s life, nearly all the work undertaken by Simtek was for Simrad products. But as time went on, Simtek found itself doing more and more work for external companies and less and less for Simrad. “At this time, Lee and I were invited to buy the company as part of an MBO and hence Simtek EMS was born,” reflects Richard. “Simtek EMS effectively became an electronics manufacturing company in its own right, with Lee employed as operations director and myself as technical director.”

Simtek EMS continues to manufacture products for Simrad but has made conscious efforts to grow and diversify its customer-base. “The problem with marine type products is that they tend to be relatively seasonal,” Richard reports, “and this resulted in very erratic manufacturing trends. We tended to be either flat-out or totally quiet so we made real efforts to expand into other areas. Today we manufacture products destined for a variety of applications including instrumentation, transport electronics with GPS systems, marine electronics, flight monitoring systems, defence and aerospace, as well as the production of battery power packs for a variety of indus­tries and market sectors.”

Perhaps one of its most successful diversions is into the world of professional audio equipment where Simtek manufactures mixing desks, rack-mounted equipment and microphone pre-amps for British company Trident Oram – a name synonymous with high quality audio equipment. With the mixing consoles, Simtek manufactures the desks from start to finish, including all the integral PCB assembly, full test and box build. Mainly used in recording studio environments, the range of consoles is also extensive with anything from eight channel desks up to 48 channels. ”

The consoles incorporate analogue signalling and all the PCB assembly is a combination of surface mount and through-hole,” Richard divulges. “Trident has no manufacturing capability of its own and so entrusts us with the entire build from start to finish. In fact the mix­ing consoles are a good example of the elements of electronics manufacturing that we excel at – component sourcing, PCB assembly, both surface mount and through-hole, wiring looms, cabling, electro-mechanical assembly, box-build, final test, packaging and logistics all cemented together with sound engineering expertise. The final sign-off is conducted by the customer who visits us as and when required to put the final stamp of approval on the product. This is something that we’re more than happy to accommodate because the customer can actually see the consoles being built and tested which is a great confidence-builder.”

Trident Oram is a true British company through and through and Richard is rightfully proud to be manufacturing products for a British organisation. “One of the really nice things about making products for Trident is the very last process that we undertake, which is affix­ing the Union Jack ‘Made in Great Britain’ label to the product. With so much manufacturing now being taken away from these shores, we find this gives us a real lift. We’re currently working on three consoles, but on average we build one console a month for Trident and these end up in studios all over the world.”

When a new project is undertaken, Simtek encourages an early involvement with the customer, even at the design stage as Richard af­firms: “It makes total sense for us to be involved all the way because ultimately we’re the ones making the product, either as a prototype or in a full-production environment, and we want that process to be as smooth, economical and problem-free as we can. This will obvi­ously benefit all concerned. Sometimes clients come to us with an already established design that’s totally proven, but often we find that although a customer may present us with a design, it’s far from perfect and we’ll work with the customer on design issues to iron out any problems so that manufacture can take place successfully. Our customers seem to really appreciate this input from us at the early stages.”

The current manufacturing trend in the UK is leaning heavily towards the low-to-medium quantities and high-tech, high value products – something Richard is experiencing first-hand. “All the high volume production has left the UK which is a sad fact of life, but we’re finding that there is definitely a niche for companies like us and the type of work we undertake,” he assures. “We do have a low-cost option for outsourcing cable assemblies if the quantities warrant it and we do source component parts and bare PCBs on a global basis, but generally we don’t even try and compete in the high volume market because it’s simply isn’t a level playing field globally anymore and until the government in this country starts to invest some funding into UK manufacturing this is unfortunately the way things will stay. But we’ll continue to focus on the things we’re good at which is excellent customer service, engineering expertise and the manufacture of relatively complex products to a high quality standard.”

With clients in a variety of sectors, it will come as no surprise that Simtek EMS operates dual production lines, leaded and lead-free to meet the needs of its customers. The company began its RoHS preparations very early and conducted its first lead-free trials back in October 2004. “We realised very early on that we would need a dedicated stock-control system to help us keep the two processes separate,” states Richard, “so we opted for a software-based system developed by German company SAP. This system has a high degree of user-customisation built-in and we’ve modified it to review every single BOM that we have and flag all the RoHS compliant compo­nents accordingly providing full product traceability. It also helped us to gain our ISO 9001 :2000 accreditation last month because it can manage all the company’s operating systems and procedures, so it’s been a very worthwhile purchase for us.”

Component obsolescence since the advent of RoHS is regarded by many as a potential timebomb waiting to be detonated. Leaded parts will undoubtedly become scarcer as distributors have to make difficult decisions on which parts to stock and extended lead-times for leaded parts are also having a real impact on production schedules and deadlines. Simtek makes every effort to be as proactive as pos­sible with obsolescence issues. “As we like to get involved with a customer in the early stages of manufacturing, we’re usually the first to discover an obsolete component in a customer’s BOM,” Richard says. “But then, rather than just highlight the problem to the customer, we actively try and source an alternative part on the customer’s behalf and engineer this into the build. We feel that this is also one of our main strengths and our customers appreciate it because for them the process is seamless and hassle-free. As we have access to a wide range of component suppliers globally, we can normally source alternatives in a timely and cost-effective manner.”

It’s an accepted fact that the face of UK manufacturing has changed – maybe permanently, but Simtek is proud of the fact that a signifi­cant proportion of the products it manufactures is exported out of the UK helping to bring Yen, Dollars and a number of other curren­cies into the UK economy. “About 30% of our products are exported, mostly to the US,” explains Richard, “but the revenues generated are put back into the business and into the pockets of our employees and that can only be good for the UK and this region in general. We know that we have many challenges ahead, but the business and customer-base is growing and we feel we’re well equipped to meet those challenges and continue to develop as a company offering a fast, friendly, flexible electronics manufacturing service.”